Tuesday, April 05, 2011

St. John Climacus Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

On this Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates St. John Climacus, who was a 6th-century monastic, bishop, and true saint who is best known for his book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. This book was originally intended for those involved in monastic endeavors, but over the years was found to be useful for all serious Christians who sought to subdue the sinful passions and purify their love for Jesus Christ. Each of its 30 chapters--called “steps”--encourage the reader to increasingly put away the love of earthly things and continue in an upward climb, as if rung by rung, progressing in both virtue and the love of God, toward a state of spiritual perfection in Christ.

Sadly, these things seem to describe the Christianity of a distant, bygone era. Today’s Christians do not seem terribly concerned with subduing their sinful passions or attaining virtue and the perfection of love in Christ. On the one hand are the people who insist that God already sees them as perfect because of their faith in Jesus. These deem any effort to progress in holiness as an attempt to “add to” the righteousness of Christ and equate it to the foolishness of the Galatians. On the other hand are the weary Orthodox and perhaps other traditional Christians who may have taken a few weak stabs at correcting themselves but have been overwhelmed by the enormity of the task or the coldness of their hearts toward God. We can easily surrender to a kind of laissez-faire Orthodoxy, which is nothing more than a beaten-down, discouraged cynicism that we can do no better to improve our response to God’s transforming love.

Compared to the Christianity of long ago, we are living in a time of great spiritual darkness and faintheartedness that often makes even the smallest spiritual effort seem incredibly difficult to us. Things as simple as keeping our little rule of prayer can often overwhelm us and seem infinitely beyond our meager abilities. We don’t know a great deal about being strict with ourselves or of forcing ourselves to do the things that are hard. We loathe spiritual struggle and much too quickly accept the notion that a kind of spiritual mediocrity is the best we can ever hope for in our lives.

But St. John Climacus understood that man was created for much higher and greater things. We are created to work together with God, in synergy, uniting our will and action to His grace and divine energies to accomplish what we by ourselves alone could never do. There are many places in Scripture where we are specifically told to cooperate with God in this way and to labor diligently and daily to eliminate sin from our lives and progress toward Christian perfection.

One such place can be found in II Peter chapter one, in a passage that sounds remarkably like a ladder of divine ascent itself. Having just reminded us of our high calling in Christ and the things available to us by His divine power, the apostle continues: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” [2 Peter 1:4-11]

Notice how St. Peter makes it plain that those who remain barren and unfruitful, though they were purged from their previous sins, are not guaranteed salvation as if by “faith alone”. Cooperation with God in the cultivation of the Christian virtues is necessary to make our calling and election sure and for entrance into the kingdom to be granted unto us.

The subduing of our many earthly passions and the formation of one focused passion for God, along with the growth in virtue that this brings, is the biblical characterization of the true Christian life. As Orthodox Christians, we must seek to embrace what the Scriptures teach and our Holy Tradition echoes concerning the Christian life, which is one of divine ascent from the fallen state in which we now exist to the exalted state God intends for us.

I think it is important to remember on this Sunday of St. John Climacus that the Church is not suggesting we should all live as monks. You don’t even need to read the Ladder of Divine Ascent if you don’t wish to. But what we do need is to live as Christians, and in so doing, to constantly push ourselves to reach for more of Christ in our lives, setting our affection on heaven above, not on the things of this world.

Beloved, I know that we can get tired and discouraged. By this point in Great Lent, we often feel very tired and discouraged. Perhaps we have seen more setbacks and failures than progress, and feel that our lent has been--to borrow a lyric from the Moody Blues--”another day’s useless energy spent”. But then again, perhaps we haven’t honestly given lent the full effort it deserves. We may have found it too easy to fall back into old habits: skipping lenten services or dragging in late on Sundays, praying sporadically, fasting incompletely, always keeping God at arm’s length, and making little sustained effort to draw near to Him during this time. We may protest that Orthodoxy is too demanding or sets the bar too high for “ordinary folks” like us. But maybe we’ve simply made ourselves out to be a little too ordinary and have forgotten our high calling in Christ Jesus. God is offering us something of unspeakable value--truly the offer of a lifetime--yet we may be too wedded to the ordinary to accept.

This is why remembering St. John Climacus and his Ladder of Divine Ascent is beneficial, even for those who’ve never read it and never will. At least when we hear of it in church, it serves as a reminder that our lives are not meant to remain mired in the ordinary. We are called to continually urge our souls upward, despite their great reluctance, and experience the joy of their union with our Sweetest Lord Jesus. This is the purpose of Great Lent. May we seize the precious few days that remain to continue our ascent to glorious Pascha and the bliss that awaits beyond!

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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